By Limiting Inclusion, NFL Loses on Diversity

Many people who hoped Michael Sam would be the “Jackie Robinson” for LGBT inclusion in sports, a key civil rights issue of his generation, are disappointed that he was cut from the roster of the St. Louis Rams. While there are many variables in a decision to cut a high profile player, the root causes of Sam’s release may be clearer than we dare admit. In the NFL, there are limits to inclusion. The problem lies in a conflict between Baby Boomers, who lead the teams, and Millennials like Sam, who know little of the bigotry that colors the perspectives and actions of older generations.

By most accounts, Michael Sam should have been a shoe-in for a top draft pick, as the All-American and Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year. But Sam, who had taken the bold step of publicly announcing that he is gay prior to the draft, was selected 249th out of 256 picks by a team that didn’t need him. Rather than being drafted by a team where he could shine, he was chosen as the last man on a deep and competitive defensive bench that rendered him superfluous from the start. The issue isn’t why the Rams released Sam; the issue is why he wasn’t picked up earlier in the draft.

Some will claim homophobia on the part of team scouts, coaches and owners as the reason Sam was not drafted earlier by a suitable team; others will suggest that Sam undercut himself by “coming out” so publicly before landing a contract and proving himself on the field. Unfortunately, both may be true, but the issues are more nuanced. Sam’s coming out was undoubtedly a bigger deal to Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), who run the teams and have long histories with societal limitations placed on individuals based on their sexuality than it was to Millennials (born 1981 or later), who don’t share this history. Data show that just 38% of Baby Boomers versus 70% of Millennials support marriage equality, which is a good barometer of how the two groups are divided on social issues more broadly.

Further, Millennials are substantially different than their parents. Millennials are more liberal in their thinking, and see big government as necessary to support society, two things that Baby Boomers generally reject. Millennials view “coming out” as living in truth, authenticity and wholeness. They largely reject the sense of hetero-normative privilege that undergirds American society. For many, the events of Ferguson, Missouri were a profound experience with our nation’s underbelly of bigotry. The difference between the bias displayed in Ferguson and that of the NFL in dealing with Sam is that in Ferguson, this bias was more outwardly evident. In Sam’s case, bigotry was silent, yet no less profound, facilitated by a decision not to sign a great pick because he’s gay.

Corporations understand that by 2020 Millennials will account for 88.5 million people in the U.S., far surpassing Baby Boomers, and that with such numbers Millennials will control the social and economic substance of the nation. By 2019, the earnings and spending of Millennials will outpace Baby Boomers in what will be a dramatic shift of economic dominance. The reluctance of suitable teams to engage Sam suggests that the NFL has not grasped the significance of America’s changing demographics. Now the NFL faces a conundrum that corporate America has spent millions of dollars addressing over the past decade: How to adapt to the Millennial mindset.

Sam, too, bears some responsibility for what happened. As a strategic matter, coming out prior to getting signed by and incorporated into a team was a mistake. His celebrity status exacerbated feelings that he was more focused on being a gay icon than a football player, for which he gained detractors. But Sam’s biggest mistake may have resulted from his generational optimism that does not see bias where it sometimes exists, that believes in being authentic as elemental to living freely, and that sees diversity in all of its iterations as a social good. Yet, Sam could not be a Jackie Robinson because unlike Robinson, he had no “Branch Rickey” in a seat of power who was willing to put their professional standing on the line to make the NFL more inclusive. Robinson, through Rickey, was supported by a bold MLB, whereas Sam encountered a weak and conflicted NFL.

The NFL should recognize that the degrees of separation between overt bigotry and unconscious biases may be few, and the effects equally harmful. If a team failed to draft Sam based on his sexual orientation, the team discriminated against him and should consider the rightness of its actions. Michael Sam should be celebrated for living in his truth and given every opportunity to pursue his dream on the field.

To the NFL’s credit, Sam has been signed by the Dallas Cowboys’ practice team, and has another shot at integrating the NFL. For him to be a successful champion of LGBT inclusion in professional football, however, he must have a “Branch Rickey” who will have the courage to blaze new trails with him. Who in the Cowboys franchise will step into those shoes?